Friday, November 16, 2012
The lost soul of the Tea Party
November 2, 2010 was a monumental day for a fledgling movement in America. Voters marched into polling booths across the country and threw out a vast swath of incumbent politicians. The 21 seats picked up by Democrats on Obama's coattails in 2008 were now seen as small potatoes compared to the 63 seat swing to the Republicans. The people were upset and needed to be heard, and the Tea Party gave them a voice. Then a mere two years later, the pendulum swung back again. Amidst the greatest recession in a generation, against the backdrop of those sweeping Republican victories in 2010, President Obama emerged victorious with the blessing of the American people for another four years. To many on the right, it was a shock. How could things have changed so much? What had happened to the soul of the Tea Party?
The early days of this new movement coagulated around a handful of core values: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and American prosperity. At that time, it was clear that both Republicans and Democrats were at fault for the financial mess our government has created. Republicans had abandoned the Contract with America, instead opting for large tax cuts with little regard for the growing debt obligations, and Democrats had massively expanded the scope of government around healthcare, ignoring a doubling again of the deficit into the trillions. There didn't seem to be a place for deficit hawks within the existing polarized party establishment. In this vacuum of leadership, the Tea Party formed.
The interesting thing about the Tea Party was how it looked. It was a reflection of America in its demographics, albeit politically tilted to the right. But its influence transcended race, age, occupation, and education. Its power came from its reach across party lines, as over 50% Tea Party supporters self identified as something other than Republicans. Its heart came from its supporter's genuine desires to set aside differences to fix the debt problem both for themselves and for future generations. They were in a pragmatic mood, willing to carefully consider what was the right balance of taxes and spending cuts to secure that future.
The Tea Party started as a genuine grass roots movement to fill a void in political will, but as soon as congressional Republicans recognized its power, they embraced the movement wholeheartedly. Ultra conservative personalities like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity helped shift the focus of the movement to meet their own political needs. Soon, the Tea Party became synonymous with preventing Obamacare, throwing out the President, and again cutting taxes. Americans were largely patient, waiting for an opportunity for the Tea Party to live up to its promise. But that ended with a thud when there was no Grand Bargain in the fall of 2012. It was just politics as usual.
Now the polls are in again, and America today looks a lot like America of 2008. So what happened to the soul of the Tea Party? Ideologues co-opted its message, and left America's center again without a voice, again in a vacuum of leadership. The good news is that the vacuum is still waiting to be filled. Independents desperately want someone to show true leadership on the deficit, while there is still time. If Washington steps back from the fiscal cliff, only to kick the can down the road again, these people will be waiting. These are pragmatic people, and are willing to reach across lines to solve problems. Next time, it may very well be fiscally responsible democrats who will sound the call, and the soul of the Tea Party will come again to help meet the challenge of our generation.